I’m the Pollyanna and it kills me. In 2004, I was in my third year of grad school, studying theatre directing. My thesis production was of an Irish play about two warring brothers and the priest who tries to reconcile them. In a certain way, it amounted to a very expensive diary entry. I watched from the back row on closing night. The jokes were popping, the audience was laughing, it should have been a dream moment in my career. The four actors I had grown to deeply adore in the two months of rehearsals demanded I join them for the curtain call, which I was thrilled to do, despite the very appropriate school-wide ribbing it earned me. What could possibly be better?
But the nagging hollowness I experienced that night was the beginning of the realization that I had directed so many plays, run two theatre companies and even attended an incredibly expensive graduate school, in a desperate and juvenile attempt to prove I was talented. Every instinct in the rehearsal hall, every design whimsy, every adjustment of timing was all done with the audience’s estimation of me in mind. I’m embarrassed to even type it.
My choice of thesis material was proof: Irish, sarcastic, a priest father figure (see other entries of this blog), deeply buried sorrow, it had every ingredient of the conversation I was having with myself, yet didn’t recognize. I was drunk on self-mythology. I was trapped in the story I was telling myself about me.
I was thus subject to delusions of grandeur about contributions to the art form, while deeply invested in all of my collaborators’ enjoyment of the process. But the more I leaned into making feisty collaborators happy, the less I got results I was looking for. And the more lofty I made my language in directing, i.e. the more I used German words like gestalt, zeitgeist, and verfremdung (or my favorite weltschmerz), the looser my grip on the details and nitty gritty we all needed to work on.
Sometimes your collaborators are mixing cement, sometimes they’re building a cathedral. And both actions look exactly the same. The trick is to know which action to address.
There was another director at school who was widely grumbled about, who was extremely direct and evaluative with the actors, and put no stock in being their friend. While most of us were caught up in the quagmire of reputation, this director said “fuck it” and got what he (or she) wanted. His productions were compelling, odd, daring and filled with a gusto mine could never have. While I endeavored to get the best from my collaborators (while remaining their friend), this director was only interested in getting the most from them (eschewing any personal connection in favor of the final product). I was always jealous.
Based on these choices, between grand vision or details, between results or morale, a director will inevitably locate themselves somewhere on the graph above. She may be like I was back in grad school, combining lofty, cosmic pursuits with the desperate need to be liked and end up the Pollyanna. Or perhaps she was born in September and as a Virgo was gifted with a flare for detail. She knows just how to get things done as expected, but remains a cheerleading enthusiast… then she’d be the Journeyman.
Maybe she’s a misanthrope, and has cracked the code of what makes a satisfying night of theatre, but harbors no illusions about what her current project will do for the world, she’d then be the Assassin. Or maybe she’s a once in a generation dynamo of leadership, who’s got a complete life outside of her artistic career, and an intact ego in no need of validation from these earthly flailings. Then she’s the Dictator.
Each archetype has its pitfalls. Most directors I show this to insist they are “all of the above.” And true, you can switch up your strategy as often as sentence by sentence, sometimes even nest a direction towards a particular detail within a thought about the grander vision of the thing, but in my experience, you tend to aggregate into one quadrant or another.
When you allow this notion to happen, and hang with the cons of such a thing, and even give permission to the creeping feeling of mediocrity—that wolf we spend so much time keeping from our brain’s door—which inevitably follows… a strange, relaxing freedom is born. A tiny window opens in our potential, on the other side of which may indeed be the ability to be truly all of the above. When you own your own subconscious archetype, and bring it up to the level of consciousness, its grip will gradually begin to relax, and you can begin to know how to inspire a shared vision, to build morale, to achieve perfection in the details, and to produce a seismic result.
Or better yet, knowing exactly when to be which.
When to talk cement. And when to talk cathedral.
As I typed the first paragraph of this piece, I received an email informing me that a first-time-feature-director-development-program had rejected my application. Confronting one’s own potential mediocrity is a dish best eaten never, but no such luck today. But what am I going to do, cry?
Maybe I lean Pollyanna, maybe one dav I’ll find out I’m mediocre, maybe I struggle with getting the most out of my collaborators, and prefer instead just to get the best out of them, but knowing all this gives me a chance to look up at the steeple for a moment’s reflection, and keep mixing.
PDF of the above chart here.